It lasted only an hour, but the unscheduled meeting between Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon was the highlight of the president's February 1972 mission to China. Both Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger were awed by the 78-year-old chairman, who "dominated the room," as Kissinger later recalled in his memoirs, "by exuding in almost tangible form the overwhelming drive to prevail."
As the leader and main strategist of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao Tse-tung is the individual most associated with the successes and failures of the Communist Revolution. A founding member of the CCP in 1921, Mao's involvement with the peasant movement in Hunan profoundly shaped his political thinking. Unlike the traditional Marxist leaders of the CCP who sought to organize the urban working class, Mao was convinced that Communist revolution could only succeed in China with the active involvement of the peasants, who made up eighty percent of the population.
In 1935 Mao led Communist troops 6000 miles on the "Long March" across China in retreat from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Settling in Yan'an province, he established a rural base of support and built up a party personally loyal to him. During the civil war of 1946-1949, Mao drew on this base to lead Communist forces to victory over the Nationalists. On October 1, 1949, Mao established the People's Republic of China. As Chairman of the Party and of the State, his role was equivalent to that of president, with Chou En-lai serving as his prime minister.
Under Mao, China underwent enormous social transformation, most notably the liberation of the peasants from centuries-old domination by landlords, and the liberation of Chinese women through the reform of oppressive marriage laws. Yet during the late 1950s and 1960s, Mao implemented a series of disastrous economic and social programs, which brought change at an enormous human cost.
From 1958-62, Mao's "Great Leap Forward," a mass campaign to communize agriculture and speed industrial growth, left China's economy in ruins, and led to the deaths of some thirty million Chinese from starvation. And in 1966 Mao called for a "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," an ideological crusade to train a new generation of revolutionaries-- and purge the CCP of Mao's political opponents. Backed by the military, millions of students mobilized into Red Guard units set about ridding China of institutions and individuals deemed insufficiently revolutionary. Like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution produced widespread economic chaos. It led to the deaths of more than two million people, including many scholars, intellectuals and artists.
By the time of Nixon's visit in 1972, China had begun to emerge from the worst years of the Cultural Revolution, although many of its policies and institutions were not abandoned until after Mao's death in 1976.
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao was elevated to an almost godlike status. His image, emblazoned on banners and badges, became ubiquitous throughout China, and his sayings, faithfully reproduced in the "Little Red Book," were routinely quoted. In 1981, the CCP adopted an official party line that criticized Mao for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, while praising the early years of his leadership. The 1980s saw an increased literary and historical interest in China in the personal details of Mao's life. And in recent years, Mao has emerged as a figure in Chinese pop music and art, some of it satirical, as the nation continues to come to grips with his lasting legacy.